The Duluth Playhouse is putting on "The Government Inspector." It is a farce.
A Russian farce.
(No, not that one.)
This version of "The Government Inspector" has been adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, who strips Nikolai Gogol's script down to the skeleton and rebuilds it with jokes guaranteed to hit an American audience's funny bone.
He also makes ample use of black-out asides (think Groucho Marx riffing on "Strange Interlude" in "Animal Crackers").
Set in 1836 in a small, desolate village somewhere in the middle of Tsarist Russia, this farce hinges on corrupt bureaucrats worried about a government inspector from St. Petersburg who "may show up at any moment, in any disguise."
Of course they all figure out it must be the visitor just come to town, Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Jonathan Manchester).
Of course they are all wrong and wackiness ensues.
Director Michael Kraklio has his cast playing things big and broad even before the first line of dialogue is spoken, but the most impressive performances in this show, that should having you smiling from start to finish, are those that are totally manic and wonderfully nuanced at the same time.
Christina Stroup as Anna Andreyevna, the mayor's wife, gets to take her character the farthest, combing a cackling laugh with dazzlingly deft shifts in voice and volume. As the Judge, Jesse Davis's mugging in reaction to everything the Mayor says is truly inspired and yet sublime.
Manchester gets to end the first act on a big roll making up monumental lies about his role in the government. Then Jody Kujawa's Mayor Anton Antonovich ends act two with his own epic explosion as everything comes to light and the cabbage soup hits the fan.
Gabriel Mayfield is the most prominent of the double-dippers in this show, giving both the extremely well-read Postmaster and Ivan's wise servant, Osip, his big booming voice.
Then there are Bobchinsky (David Krick) and Dobchinsky (Joe McLaughlin), the Tweedledum and Tweedledummer twins of the proceedings, who have not a hair's difference between them (a head's difference, yes, but not a hair's difference).
The gorgeous scenic design by Curtis Phillips with its dozens of houses from the Dr. Caligari school of architecture manifests the skewed perspective of this farce.
The colorful set and stage pieces draw their palette from the big box of crayons, with the faux red curtains, giant yellow and orange sun, and the great caricature portrait of the mayor that should end up on Kujawa's wall as a memento of his performance.
Peg Ferguson's costume design achieves its twin pinnacles of excessiveness in the gowns worn by the Mayor's wife and daughter (the latter's trio of frocks perfectly captures the arc of Eden Nesburg's character).
This comedy even has great hair. Davis and Bryan Burns sport impressive beards. Carol Zakula had a series of fright wigs for her various servants, but Stroup's second act wig was delightfully demented.
P.S. After seeing this play, you will never look at a bear skin rug the same way ever again.
Lawrance Bernabo is a professor of communications and longtime arts critic for the News Tribune.
If you go
What: "The Government Inspector"
Where: NorShor Theatre, 211 E. Superior St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through May 18 and 2 p.m. May 19
Tickets: Start at $30 at Duluth Playhouse box office or www.duluthplayhouse.org